Monthly Archives: May 2014

Protestantism, liberalism, peace


Reading up and down political theory and asking myself how this could be related to peacebuilding (in order to write that very chapter of my book) I was more and more puzzled by the relationship between Protestantism, liberalism and peace. Yes, this must be a HUGE area and yet, I searched google scholar and the usual databases up and down, to find very, very little if not anything at all on this topic. So using once again the blog as notepad and virtual ‘fridge’ to keep ideas fresh for later use….here we go, some reflections on Protestantism, liberalism and peace:

Since Max Weber we have an idea of how Protestantism and liberalism are ideologically linked. Historically, the history of Great Britain and the US show clear linkages between political ideas of toleration, civil society freedom and light state control over individuals as ways out of religious conflict arising from the spread of protestant and reformist churches.

On the other hand, there seems to general consensus that current peacebuilding efforts are to be labelled ‘liberal’. Some hold them to be too liberal, other not liberal enough (see David Chandler’s recent analysis) yet that political liberalism is the driving ideology underlying contemporary peacebuilding seems in little doubt.

However, nowhere has the link been made between Protestantism, liberalism and ideas of peace as advocated by the so-called ‘international community’ (of which we know, of course, that it isn’t really a community but as shorthand for the couple of powerful states and international organisations who orchestrate contemporary peacebuilding it will do).

This is so despite a renewed interest in dissecting our understanding of ‘peace’. Oliver Richmond in particular has devoted parts of his work to the question ‘what is peace’ yet similar to others he has ended up with a list of attributes to be attached to the notion ‘peace’: there is now not only the liberal peace, but also the victor’s peace (realist interpretation of peace), peace as social justice (apparently the Marxist version) and a post-structuralist understanding of peace. Richmond’s classification reflects largely the traditional English School interpretation of IR theory as ‘Hobbesian’, ‘Kantian and ‘Marxist’, or realist, liberal and Marxist and to this classical mix he adds a pinch of Foucault.

There is also hybrid peace, which is not defined in terms of political ideology or understanding of IR theory but rather a very rough category, any kind of peace effort that includes local actors. And then there is Michael Barnett’s proposition of a republican peace as alternative to the liberal peace which is, again, ideologically ill defined but preoccupied with the type of institutions that should be built in peacebuilding efforts.

What is common to all these interpretations and proposals of peace is that they see themselves as secular proposals. The rift between secular social science peace research and religious motivated peace research is rather obvious in the publication behaviour of the authors. On the one hand, there are the Yoders and Lederachs who publish monographs and in theological or philosophical journals. On the other hand are the secular peace researchers who prefer social science journals and, cautiously aim at integrating the larger IR debates by publishing in traditional IR outlets like Review of International Studies or International Organization. Quite interestingly and contrary to Yoder, Lederach makes very little of his religious background in his writings and seeks to impress a secular audience as much as he aims at reformulating basic principles of mennonite thought on peace. He resembles in this Ralph Niebuhr who argued for a secular peace philosophy in order to counter the reality of international politics that could not be captured with pacifist ideas alone.

Yet, this secularisation of peace research has rather obscured its religious legacy and continuities (older IR research has in fact more openly discussed the links between religious views and views of the international system, for instance Hedley Bull’s discussion of Martin Wight but somehow this has been lost in the more recent debates). Instead of critically analysing those religious roots, most of peace research continues to transmit values and ideas, which are based in Christian, and for large parts, protestant morality and ethics. The secularization of peace research might even have reinforced the tacit, subconscious and ‘normal’ essence of these values up to a point that it might appear extremely strange to even ask the question whether our, i.e. Western, white, European or Christian (or monotheist) ideas of peace are in any way culturally particular. This would not be blog post but a scholarly book if I had good, evidenced and fully argued answers to that question. Yet, I can throw in some arguments about striking parallels between protestantism, liberalism and certain visions of peace that can be typically found in Western (understood LARGE) discourses.

First there is this idea of ‘improvement’. Now, there can be a huge theological debate over the degree to which different protestant denominations argue about the scope of individual improvement but it is certainlynot entirely wrong to assert that the key ideas of protestantism are that men (and women) are born as individuals with one life in which they have to strive to move as far away as possible from the sinful, unreasonable and unrational child they are towards a person that can justify, morally and in terms of his or her beliefs, to have been selected by God. (I should maybe simply copy-paste Max Weber’s caveat as to the sociologists view on religion being forcebly superficial and rought as compared to the hairsplitting intracacies of the theologists’ views…in any case this here is meant to be a very rough sketch not yet a full theological, sociological discussion…apologies hence for very rough renderings of protestantism).

‘Improvement’ includes the idea of progress and perfectability of men. Much of Max Weber’s essay on protestantism and the spirit of capitalism aims at showing just how much these ideas of perfectability and improvement have been ideological motors of enrichment, invention and technological progress that have marked the capitalist age. But the idea of a capacity of improvement as key characteristic of societies and states can be found also in the early writing of liberals such as Mill and in later ideas of modernisation and development like in almost caricatural form of Rostow’s stages of development. Although critical theory and post-colonial thought have severely undermined the confidence of the modernist discourse, the idea of ‘improvement’ remains a central tenent of most development and also peacebuilding discourses.

It can be found in the language of any agency report one wishes to consult: every report will talk in progressive terms and assert that things are moving forward (never backward, you mind), that progress was achieved here or there, growth ignited here, take-offs orchestrated there. The paradigm of progress also sharply shapes policy oriented social science research, notably in the forms of scales on which societies can move up or down: the Freedom House scale, the failing states scale, the civil society scale etc. Improvement is indeed the key justification of any post-conflict reconstruction effort, what counts is that the lives of people become better and if they haven’t done so despite all efforts then this is because XX (insert: international community, the UN, the USA or any other culprit) has not tried hard enough.

Having to try hard, having to work hard, having to overcome obstacles is again another very protestant trait of peacebuilding. Again, the core distinction of protestant belief to Catholic bellief is that even though man has not chosen her destiny, it is still man who has to work hard to fulfill her fate. It is every individual who has to overcome the imperfections of the real life and who has to do so urgently, given that we only have this one life for that. Max Weber pointed out that it is this idea that the course of humanity can be changed and that destiny can be actively filled was at the origin of any political concept of social engineering (although Weber did not call it that way), i.e. of the idea that a community can be organised in a way that every single person can be set to improve.

The thought that men who are born miserable are luckier because they have more opportunities to prove how hard they are believing in God and to prove how hard they work to overcome the obstacles of fulfilling their destiny is only a psychological perversion for those who do not believe in the individual and determinate selection of God’s children. In the mindset of protestant beliefs it is entirely reasonable that having more proves of true belief to deliver is a clear indicator of being more selected.

It might be that the continuation of peacebuilding and development, despite their multiple and variously discussed and analysed failures, is due to this same perserverance. If peacebuilding or development assistance has failed up to now then this only shows how much it is necessary to continue. If Sysiphos would have been protestant he might have been happy.

Individuals who do not succeed in fulfilling their destiny have, in most protestant thought at least, mainly themselves to blame. They are probably not pious enough, not hard working enough, victim of deadly sins, seductions and temptations, not well integrated in the community of believers and distracted, or…simply not selected. The peacebuilding discourses about ‘spoilers’ or ‘trauma’ bear similarities in that they pathologize the societies in question for not achieving peace. If societies cannot find peace despite various efforts of conflict resolution, then it must be that they are caught in erronous beliefs (e.g. ethnic nationalism), that they are victims of seduction and temptation (e.g. warlords), that they are, temporarily at least, incapable of doing things right (e.g. traumatized) etc.

A final parallel between protestantism, liberalism and peace that comes to my mind is the tension of international law and interventionism which reflects not only the ambigious relationship between society and state in liberal ideology but also the ambigious relationship between individual, community and god in protestant movements. On the one hand is the sovereign individual communicating directly and personally with God, and on the other hand is the community surveilling the individual that this communication takes place in due form. On the one hand is the autonomous civil society minding its own business, and on the other hand is the state providing the legal protective space for the civil society to mind its own, and nobody else’s business, e.g. as seen in legalizing and enforcing private property. On the one hand is the sovereign state and the autonomous society, and on the other hand is the responsibility to protect norm (or however any interention norm had been called in the past) to oversee that the principles of international law may only be applied to ‘decent people’ as John Rawls called democratic and non-democratic, yet liberal states.

These are a couple of, admittedly very rough parallels between Protestantism, liberalism and peace yet they appear to me promising inroads into a genealogy of peace, as it is understood in contemporary peacebuilding. Comments, and especially corrections on my views on Protestantism, most welcome!